Art ITP Music NYU VisualMusic

A Brief Overview of John Cage’s Musical Philosophy

A short report I wrote up for my Visual Music class:

A Brief Overview of John Cage’s Musical Philosophy

Asian cultures were a major influence on American composer John Cage.  He began studying Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the late 1940’s, which led him to his ideas of indeterminacy and chance-controlled music, which he began composing in the early 1950’s.  Cage adopted principles from the I Ching, the Chinese “Book of Changes” that one consults after tossing a set of coins. The I Ching inspired Cages chance compositions, which were governed by random operations just like readings from the I Ching.

Cage writes about his early contact with Eastern philosophies in his 1989 Autobiographical statement:

It was also at the Cornish School that I became aware of Zen Buddhism, which later, as part of oriental philosophy, took the place for me of psychoanalysis. I was disturbed both in my private life and in my public life as a composer. I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication, because I noticed that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh. I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication. I found this answer from Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player: The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences. I also found in the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswammy that the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation. I became less disturbed and went back to work.

Through his study and experimentation, Cage came to the conclusion that there is no distinction between sound and silence, music and non-music, humanity and nature.  Cage said in his address, “Experimental Music,” given to the convention of the Music Teachers Association of Chicago in 1957:

Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.

But this fearlessness only follows if, at the parting of the ways, where it is realized that sounds occur whether intended or not, one turns in the direction of those he does not intend. This turning is psychological and seems at first to be a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity—for a musician, the giving up of music. This psychological turning leads to the world of nature, where, gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together; that nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained. In musical terms, any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity.

The most famous/infamous manifestation of Cage’s philosophy was the 1952 piece 4’33”, in which David Tudor sat down in front of a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and did not play any notes.  This was Cage’s musical parallel to the White Paintings of Robert Rauchenberg, which whom Cage collaborated.  Cage’s 4’33” is sometimes referred to as “The Silent Piece,” but it is not at all silent.  The piece is made up of the hum of the air-conditioning in the hall, the ruffle of programs, the coughing of an audience member; it is an invitation, an invocation, to listen to the ambient sounds all around us.  Cage rejects the distinction between musical and non-musical sounds, and embraces all sounds, regardless of the performers intent, to be potentially musical.  In doing so, Cage completes the break from the history of classical composition and offers up a new model for music in which the primary act of for the composer and for the performer is not to make music, but to listen.

Cage’s ideas about what music were also influenced by the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp, who presented “found art,” or “ready-mades”– everyday, unadulterated objects in museum settings as finished works of art. Just as Duchamp saw art in the everyday objects, Cage found music around him.  Cage rejected the idea of music having to express something within, musical inspiration could be found in the smallest and most mundane things, such as the imperfections in a piece of paper.  Cage also rejects the notion that music is an extension of a composer’s ego, and that it is the role of the composer to create music out of silence.  For Cage, silence doesn’t exist at all. For Cage, composing means listening, and listening is a kind of meditation, a way of communing with nature.

Cage himself sums it up best.  Again quoting from his Autobiographical Statement, “My favorite music is the music I haven’t yet heard.  I don’t hear the music I write.  I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.”